Zone Three - Part 1

By Brian Willmott

Chain Border

My name is Chuck Walker and I am writing this story at the behest of the Magistrate. I broke the Law and he said that I should tell others how I got into trouble, then hopefully they will not do the same. I am at home now with my family, waiting for the final decision on my sentence. Pop is reading my words as I write, and he says that I should tell the story as if you, the reader, knows nothing of our way of life. I can see that is a good idea, for new communities are being admitted into our state every few weeks.

***

It was mid-morning when Art noticed that we had stumbled onto an old-time road. Amongst the undergrowth he saw chunks of broken asphalt, pointing them out to me. "Let's see if we can follow it," he said, looking for more.

"OK," I agreed. "We may even find something special. Then we can report it to the Lawman."

Art laughed. "What, and give him all the credit? No, if we find something good, we'll take it back ourselves."

It wasn't long before we found some rusty metal posts amongst the trees. Just beyond, the woods thinned out and we found ourselves standing on the cracked concrete of a parking lot. A few yards in front of us lay the rusting remains of a car, and beyond that stood a weather stained single story building. Above the flat roof of the squat block, like some huge grey tombstone, loomed the face of a cliff. Some weathering had caused the face to shed parts of its surface and the roof of the building was a jumble of small rocks. Over the double door were the remains of a weathered sign on which only the last couple of words could still be seen. "ZONE THREE," they said.

Art ran to the car, picking up a piece of glass that was just supported by a heap of rust. He held it up and scrubbed at the stains on its surface. "We could use this in our den, Chuck. See if you can get that other window out." He pointed to the other side of the hulk.

I grabbed the pane and wriggled it, rust falling around my boots like a red waterfall. Within seconds I had my prize; I held it up with a triumphant grin.

Art took the glass from me and laid both pieces on the pavement at the edge of the clearing. I looked at the heap of rust, searching for other treasures. The large windscreen was cracked and the rear window still remained firm, so I ignored them.

"Come on," Art said, tugging at my arm as he walked towards the building under the cliff. "Let's look inside."

The building was well-built with a heavy steel door guarding the entrance, and I was confident that it would deny us access. We had been taught in school that discoveries of this nature were to be reported, and investigative action left to the authorities.

Sure enough, when he tried the door it refused to open. "Pity," I said, sounding as if I meant it. "We'll just have to wait to find out what's inside. We can ask what was found when the Lawmen have had a look around."

"Are you kidding? I'm not waiting for that. Anyway, they'll steal the best stuff, and we'll get the rubbish. I'm going in the window." Art picked up a rock and heaved it at one of the three windows that were the only other breaks in the cube of concrete. The glass proved to be tough, and it resisted his initial attack.

Art was not the sort of boy to be scared of some nebulous future punishment for breaking into some deserted and forgotten building. It was not in his nature to knuckle down to authority. He stood five feet tall, a good four inches above me although we were both the same age, and he was already showing signs of early puberty. He hadn't yet started to grow a beard, but his upper lip had a coating of fine dark hair and his face had recently lost the roundness of a child. I, on the other hand looked to be a couple of years his junior, still clear skinned, with an unruly mop of blonde hair that was bleached almost white where it escaped from beneath my cap. I deferred to Art most of the time; he was my hero and protector. With him as a friend I no longer feared being bullied by the other boys because of my size.

I knew that breaking the window was wrong, but he had given me a challenge. I forgot my objections to entering the building. Now I saw only a sheet of glass that had to be broken. Selecting a heavy chunk of broken concrete, I joined Art in a determined assault. The pane cracked, first becoming cloudy as a starred pattern crazed its surface. Repeated blows smashed a respectable hole through it. I had never seen glass like it before. The pieces were almost like large grains of sugar, with no sharp edges, and they were easy to clear from the frame once we had broken through.

"Give me a leg up," I asked Art. Now that we had broken in, I was eager to explore the inside of the building.

I looked inside at a strange office. We grew up in the comparatively austere surroundings of a large village a hundred miles away on the Texan border, and knew little of the wonders of civilization, but those we were taught at school. This room had several desks and chairs, all made of metal and what I guessed was plastic. There were large cabinets along one wall, and on the one opposite a board with printed notices pinned to it.

I scrambled inside, and leaning out, helped Art up. "Wow!" he said looking around, his eyes wide. "These must be computers." He ran a finger across the glass face built into the top of one of the desks. He left a mark in the dust. There was a thin layer over everything, hiding the finer details.

I brushed some of the fine grey powder off of the desk nearest to me, and then blew the remainder away with a whoosh. We both began coughing as the fine particles got in our throats.

"Idiot!" Art opened the only door and escaped into a wide dark passage. Opposite was another door and he opened that to reveal another, larger room. This one was set out as a canteen, with six tables each flanked by four chairs, and off to one side I saw a small kitchen.

I sat in one of the chairs to try it out because it looked so fragile, not at all like the wood and leather furniture I was used to. Surprisingly, the seat was very comfortable, and it took my weight without any problem although I felt it give slightly as I sat down. "These would be great in our den." I stood and lifted the lightweight seat. "Plastic is supposed to be weatherproof."

"Yeah, great, we'll take one each. And some of these." Art held up a handful of cutlery, still shiny even after nearly a century, for that is how long this place must have been forgotten. Civilization broke down in all but a few isolated centers and there were many remains such as these to be found, hidden now by nature.

My eyes however were drawn to something on the wall beyond, and my expression must have alerted him. He turned and looked at the picture pasted above a calendar. "Oh boy!" He said turning as bright red as I must have been. "She's naked."

We were drawn irresistibly to the picture of the woman. We were fascinated by the forbidden fruit displayed before us. Like all our contemporaries, we wore voluminous black clothes that covered us from neck to ankle. On our heads perched soft felt caps and our feet were shod in sturdy boots. To people from the last century, we would have been a strange sight dressed in this way, but the religion of Texas was rigid in its view of the human body. Sight of the naked flesh of a person was supposed to be sinful, so our dress code dictated we cover ourselves completely. Not even at home could we relax. Even husband and wife were supposed to protect each other from temptation.

"We must have this for our den." Art carefully removed the prize, his gaze feasting on it still.

I stood beside him, embarrassed but keen to study every detail "We'll have to hide it somewhere safe, though. We'll be in deep trouble if we're caught with it." I may have been the smaller one and slightly more timid, but I was still ready to break the rules if I thought I could get away with it. We were both of us in some form of trouble with the grown-ups every day, and that was why we spent so much time in the woods. There, well away from danger of being seen, we would take off our caps and unbutton the necks of our shirts, in conscious defiance of authority. If we heard anyone else in the woods, however, or if we felt we were too close to the village, we soon covered up again, but the breaking of the rules gave us a feeling of independence. But having this picture was a worse crime than that!

Art laid the calendar reverently on a table until we were ready to leave, then walked back out into the dark corridor and turned to the left away from the big entrance doors. I followed after a further glance at the picture, and saw that another pair of green painted steel doors blocked the passage only a few yards beyond. "Why put doors there?" I asked, puzzled. "That's where the rock should be."

"I don't know," Art pushed against them but they wouldn't budge. "I saw some keys in the office," he said, looking at a keyhole in the right door. "Let's try them and see if we can find out what's behind."

He ran into the office and came back out with a large bunch of brass keys. He tried several, until he found one that reluctantly worked.

After such a long time, this was a tribute to the lock and the grease that protected it.

It took our combined weight to push the huge door open, and we could hear the hinges protest as it moved. Beyond was a dark and vast echoing cavern. All we could see in the light that filtered through from the two front rooms was a pair of white lines painted on the floor. As our eyes adapted to the darkness, we saw vague geometrical shapes that seemed to form in the gloom. "We're going to need candles to explore any further," Art observed. "We'll come back again next weekend. Don't say anything to anyone till then. This is our find and we get to explore it first."

"OK, but we must do something about the window. We can't leave it open like it is now, " I said as we returned to the passage. "Does one of those keys fit the outside doors?"

Art tried and soon found one that worked. Again the lock was stiff and it took him a lot of effort to turn the key all the way. The door opened inward, and both of us had to pull mightily on the handle to open it far enough for us to squeeze through.

Having established that we could get out that way, we took two of the chairs and dropped them out of the window before wedging one of the canteen tables across the breach in the office. Art collected the calendar and then we slipped out of the main door. We had a few anxious moments when we thought we would never close it behind us, but in the end we were able to secure the building again.

We took our booty back to our hideout in the woods, and then returned to the village. We swore to each other that we would keep secret our knowledge of the building under the cliff. I was dubious at making the commitment because we could be in very serious trouble if we were found out.

***

New Texas, where we live, has some very strict laws. Sex, is one of the things the laws control. Just about everything to do with it is not allowed, and anyone who does something wrong is punished by the Magistrates. In the old days, people did what they wanted, and some one made a disease that killed off nearly everyone. Since then people are afraid of sex.

It took seventy years for people to build up our state again. They built new cities, some of them near the ruins of the old ones, and new rulers took over. They kept power by appointing Lawmen to make us do as we were told, and they made it easier for the Magistrates to convict anyone who didn't.

***

For the next couple of days we carried on our lives as normal. I managed to steal half a candle from the kitchen, hoping that Mom wouldn't notice. I only dared to take two matches from the box on the top of cupboard, as they were sure to be missed if I was greedy. These I wrapped in a scrap of cloth and hid under the chest at the foot of my bed.

Reporting my success to Art, I was dismayed to find that he was having second thoughts about our vow of silence. We faced serious trouble if it was discovered that we had withheld information about the discovery of a Pre-Plague site, and he thought we should go and confess.

"No, Art," I protested. "We can't say anything until we have been there again. If we tell now, then we'll be in real trouble."

"But we will still be in trouble later."

"Only if the Lawmen find out we found it previously. We can check that everything is okay and that no one else has been there. Then we can say we had just found it, and apologize for the window, but we can't say we found it last weekend."

He saw the logic in my argument and promised to wait. I can't say that he was happy about it, but he realized that we had put ourselves in a position where we had few choices. If only we had been able to see what was in the future! Art, my constant shadow and only real friend amongst the strangers of our new community, and I were still of school age. Although both only months from our thirteenth birthdays, and adulthood, we knew nothing of the dangers Pre-Plague sites posed.

Each day, after school we diligently did our chores, using the longer evening light to get through the week's tasks, so as to leave us free on the weekend. This brought a comment from Pop, who said that maybe I should be given extra jobs in future. Fortunately, Mom took my side, arguing that I should be allowed to plan my week how I wanted. He was suspicious though. It was not my normal way.

On Saturday, Art met me just outside our den, and we quickly made our way to the site. Carefully, we crept to the edge of the clearing and watched from the trees. All was quiet, and the table still blocked the window, so it looked as if no one else had found the place.

We ran across the concrete and Art unlocked the doors that again needed both of us to open. Inside I swiftly checked the office, worried that rain might have got in through the window. All was as we had left it, and I felt almost faint with relief. I had been worried as well, but would never have admitted it to Art.

"Come on, Chuck," Art was impatient to explore beyond the inner doors. "Give me a match."

I was about to move the table back where it belonged and stopped to give him one of my matches. He had been able to bring a whole candle but hadn't a means of lighting it. He then asked me to help him with the door, so I left the office.

We both pushed on the unlocked doors and this time they moved a little easier. To give ourselves more light we opened both doors as wide as they would go, and then, pausing only to light our candles from a single match, we stepped boldly into the cavern beyond.

My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and with the flickering light of the candles, I was able to make out lines of metal racks stretching back into the hill behind the building. On the nearest were stowed wooden boxes of various shapes and sizes, but beyond them I could just make out rows of metal drums lying on their sides in the racks.

"Wow!" I ran to the nearest rack, almost blowing out my candle in my haste. The first box I looked at had obviously had a card label when it had been put on the rack, for I could see the discolored remains still stuck to the side. Whatever had been written on it had faded beyond any possibility of being read. Below, though, a box had markings painted directly onto the wood, but what they represented I was at a loss to know.

Art moved deeper into the storage area, but my eye was caught by a reflection of light in the dark area to the left of the doors. I walked over to investigate, and as I got closer I saw that there was a yellow-painted machine parked next to a wooden hut. It was some sort of lifting vehicle, I guessed, for it had two large arms that stuck out of the front of a vertical support and had small wide wheels for it to move around on. Behind the supports was a seat, in front of which were some levers and a wheel for steering. I climbed up and sat in the seat imagining myself as the driver.

I was still on the vehicle when there was a tremendous crash from amongst the storage racks, and a short scream from Art. A further series of noises followed, the sounds of groaning wood and solid clangs of metal on concrete being most prominent. "Art. Art," I called as I ran towards the area they had come from.

It was dark ahead; I could see no light from his candle. Halfway along the aisle I could see that the drums stored there had cascaded from their racks. One of them had split with the impact and the contents were leaking into spreading pool. I splashed through this obstacle, seeing Art's head and left arm between three of the drums.

I reached my friend and tried to push aside the containers on top of him. They were heavy and wedged between the racks, and I couldn't do more than rock the top one. I was crying and calling to Art, but he gave no response. Stopping my efforts to move the drums, I leant over to reach him. It was then that I noticed the blood. There was a pool of dark red blood under his head, and some was even coming from his ear. His head looked odd, and he stared sightless at the racks above him.

I was coughing with the fumes that were coming from the spilt contents as I leaned over a drum holding Art. With tears in my eyes I shook him, screaming at him to respond, but I already knew he would never move again. I made one more attempt to move the drums off the top of him. By now my lungs were on fire. The fumes from the spillage were too much to endure, so I scrambled back to the light and fresh air outside.

Instinctively, I kept going, once I was outside. Every breath was searing pain, and my eyes burned too. How I made it back to the village I don't know, but I remember gasping out the terrible news to someone before collapsing.

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